The plateau. Those are the two worst words for a fighting game player to hear. To plateau means virtual fighting death. It stands for stagnation, a halt in progress, or just plain stuck. The questions then pop up: "Can I be a top player?" "Is this really my potential?"
To properly answer these doubts, one must observe the key difference in how a "top player" plays in relation to the beginner, intermediate, or competitive fighter.
If you want to be a top player, you need to fully understand mind games. You need to know how to condition and bait an opponent. These are the most basic and fundamental mind games for fighting game players to know, and every tournament winner possesses them. It is what separates them from the good players, the training stage dummies, and the beginners. It puts them in their own class and rank.
"On a basic level, it's doing something to trick the player," fighting game expert David 'UltraDavid' Graham recently told me. "In advanced play, you see things that work based off of expectations; expectations both for the conventions of the game and what the player understands."
Simply put, conditioning in fighting games is planting an idea in the opponent for an advantageous purpose. Here's an example:
Alex Valle, the player on the right, uses his first offensive advance to establish an "overhead." The idea is to instill the threat of a high attack the next time he strikes (1:25 in clip). It immediately reaps positive results as Valle takes the round from Daigo Umehara with two low attacks (first, the sweep and then the low forward) in his last offensive series.
It is not simply a trick, but a manipulation of both the conventions within the game and human nature. In fighting games, the player's tools include projectiles, long and short range normal attacks, or special moves. In order to take full advantage of the game's engine, players utilize both safe and unsafe options in a way to confuse the opponent (example: throw a fireball for zoning in order to dash forward the next time).
As for human nature, it is common to see reactions based off of events in the past. To simply predict an outcome, without experiencing a form of it before, is not the norm. Manipulating this bit of knowledge is the ground floor for conditioning.
"It's basic human nature to expect something to happen again after seeing it multiple times," Graham said.
Using conditioning well can make the difference between a lower-level player and someone at the top. It involves understanding a situation you've set up, not just simply performing a trick. An advanced player knows what their opponent is capable of and what the game allows.
"The top player is able to remove the opponent from the game and play the player," Graham said. "They can react and play without a setup [in order] to prey on the opposition and show their lack of knowledge."
Here, at about 12:18 in, Justin Wong (Storm) uses both the pressure of the situation and his own resources (his health meter) to bait out a reaction from Filipino Champ. Wong ends a combo early to give Filipino Champ the illusion that the pressure is over. As a result, it prompts Filipino Champ to call an assist and rewards Wong with a free punish on the assist character; more damage than originally guaranteed.
The final scramble is a culmination of all the mind games built up by Wong. Wong's "miracle" super attack hits two characters, and finished the game, because he conditioned Filipino Champ to press an assist whenever the pressure was allegedly over. It was the read that won the match for Wong. It was not merely a prediction or guess, but rather a culmination of observations that Wong exploited.
"Reads are primarily from playing the mind game," fighting game expert James 'Jchensor' Chen told me. "The best players tend to choose the right decisions because they understand the concept."
Reads are made because the player played the mind game well and was rewarded as such.
"Advanced players can do it at any time," Chen said. "They recognize it in every situation. It allows for more improvisation."
In this set, Snake Eyez (Zangief) blocks for the majority of the first two games. He holds back and prevents Ricky Ortiz' (Rufus) advantage of longer-ranging normals. Because of the pace set by Snake Eyez and his self-restraint, game three is a sudden departure from the previous two. By about 8:47, Snake Eyez's explosion of offense can't be defended. He is able to improvise his entire offensive flurry and eliminate Ortiz from the tournament because Ortiz could not adjust quickly enough to the pace of the match. That perfect and final round was no accident.
Performing top-level baiting and conditioning is necessary to be an elite player, but how is it different than just copying the best setups and playing off that?
"At the lower levels, you're not playing the opponent—you're reacting, but not taking advantage of it," Graham said. "You're playing what you think you should be doing instead of understanding."
"The difference is applying strategies without knowing why it works—just a good a trick," Chen said.
It's important to understand why you're faking a normal or jumping in when the entire match was based off of the ground. That's easy to write on paper, but how can someone understand every situation and use it to their advantage? "Top players understand the psychology of their opposition and utilizes it accurately," Chen said. "They understand why it works and adjust it to make it better."
"The key difference is the memory and the ability to recall quickly," Graham said. "The best players notice everything and catalog it regardless of importance. They'll remember all situations in all rounds."
To fully utilize your brain as a muscle and tool in fighting games, you need to harness exactly what the top players already have—the ability to recall. In order to properly understand why baiting and conditioning is so important in the highest of levels, every situation in every round must be accounted for. "Watch videos and try to remember all the scenarios," Graham said. "All high level players worked on it; not getting flustered or forget[ting] anything in rounds."
The difficulty of maintaining composure, playing your opponent, and recognizing situations from past events is the biggest separator from a competitor to an elite player.
"The game isn't about tricks," Chen said. "It's conditioning."
Timothy Lee is a writer of video games and sports. He has published articles for Riot Games, IGN.com, 1UP.com, and Rotowire.com. You can find him on Twitter @SHBL_Tim and read about his rants on how Hearthstone only gives him Murloc cards.
Video credits: Level Up Series, Evolution 2014 and staff | Commentators: James Chen, David Graham, Michael Mendoza, and Christian "Skisonic."